True sense of maturity.

My 10 year old son’s thoughts always intrigued me since he was old enough to articulate them. I had a tougher time figuring him out than I did my daughter. His thoughts were different than what I expected. I had taken him to a story hour at our local library when he was about 4. The librarian read Mo Willem’s  Don’t let the Pigeon drive the Bus. The pigeon made so many mistakes that it was obvious he should not be allowed to drive. The instructor, at the end of the book asked the children, ‘do you think pigeon should drive the bus?’ There was of course a resounding ‘NO,’ except one tiny voice (my child’s) saying ‘yes!’ The children’s instructor turned to me smiling, ‘Ryan seems to think pigeon should drive!’

I was worried. Does he have trouble in comprehension? Did he not quite understand the story? Was he not paying attention? I asked him as we drove home:
‘Why did you say the pigeon should drive, darling? He was making all those mistakes!’
My four year old’s answer humbled me, ‘Because everybody should get chances!’

I see him trying to justify the reason behind a bad action. What made the man or woman do what s/he did? We talk about the villains in books he reads, movies he watches and I listen to him digging deep to find a cause for the villainy. I think he believes in innate goodness and trying to find a reason for evil gives him some kind of peace. Maybe all children start off this way – believing in the wholesome goodness of all souls around them. And then life teaches them cynicism, skepticism, disbelieve, disrespect. He reads about Nazis and has a passionate dislike for Hitler. Yet he wonders if a lot of human lives would have been saved if Hitler had gained admission to the art school which refused him. What made Hitler do what he did? Why did Jack the Ripper kill the women? What was the reason? What did they themselves go through?

Finding a reason for a hurtful word or action against us can help mitigate our anger and diffuse the burning desire to seek revenge. A human who can attain that state can be truly happy. Most of us struggle to get there. Although in our lucid state we realize that is the ‘right’ course of action, in agitated state, however, reasoning and sometimes maturity evade us. Having said that, while hurting others can never be an option yet justifying their action to stay in a relationship that has gone completely putrid is also unacceptable and leads to extreme unhappiness. One needs to be mindful of the fine line. And here I give an example of Ryan yet again.

In second grade, he got pushed off the lunch bench by a little boy at the behest of another. Ryan hurt his head and had to go to the nurse. I was understandably livid after hearing the incident. My son pacified me by saying it was not really ____’s fault, he did not know his strength, he misunderstood _________’s direction, _____ did not ask ________ to push me. Either he did not want me involved in the situation or he was making excuses for two boys’ bad behavior. That is not maturity or wisdom, that is giving in to bullying. I had to have several conversation with him about understanding the fine line between the two.


Understanding the reason behind a man’s action is a true sign of maturity. Not hurting back is a true sense of maturity but not standing up against a hurtful action or speaking out against it is not. It is easy to blur the line but as parents we need to be ever vigilant that we keep this fine line clear for our children.

Sincerely trying – to find the silver lining.

All you see of her face are two beautiful eyes looking back at you. The rest of the face is covered up carefully with her dupatta. And all of her arms as well. She doesn’t wear new clothes, she doesn’t buy any jewelry or apply any make up like most twenty year olds do. She stays busy hiding her burnt and severely scarred face and arms from public prying eyes. She keeps her head down and walks fast when out on errands. Her ‘happy place’ is within the perimeters of the home she lives in now.

Gouri is employed as the domestic help in my parent’s house. My father had some initial misgivings about Gouri’s scars, he was worried that his grandkids, my children, would be scared of her disfigurement when they came to visit. I knew I was raising them differently. However, I had a conversation with them about this employment, about her scars and her life. They both agreed the scars and the disfigurement were a non issue and that didiya and dadai (grandmom and granddad) should ‘most positively’ hire her.

We went back home this summer and met Gouri for the first time, in person. Sahana gave her a spontaneous hug, maybe to show that her facial scars are no deterrent for love and affection. Ryan didn’t mention anything about the scars but behaved with her like he always behaves with any other women, shy smile and never looking up in the eye till the ice was broken and Gouridi became his winning partner in a game of Ludo every evening. Towards the end of our visit he was hanging from her arms and reveling in her love.

Her story is nothing new. She is yet another victim of domestic violence, who, unable to find any support or escape from the torture, in a moment of insanity, decided to put an end to her own life. She thought she would end it all, the pain, the degradation, the horror, the shame. Instead she gained a life of scorn, judgment and yes, shame – she left her husband and got a divorce, you see. The shame is indeed not hers, is it? Don’t answer that, that question was rhetorical. The shame belongs to those who failed her. Those who failed miserably to help her when she was flailing, trying desperately to get out of the clutches of her drunken father-in-law and abusive husband.

I will write about her life, I have her permission. She worked in Kolkata as a domestic help. A man came with a group of his friends to see a prospective bride for one of the mates. The man happened to see her, liked her and wanted to marry her right away. First Gouri’s father and elder brothers were reluctant at this match. It was too sudden they said, they were not ready. The man said he will take less dowry. That sealed the deal. I can’t judge the family. Extreme poverty, one less mouth to feed, you do the math. Her family borrowed, begged and finally married her off.

When Gouri followed her newly wed husband to his home a surprise awaited her. The man’s family was clueless about this wedding which was nothing more than a whim on the man’s part. The in-law’s disappointment knew no bounds. Families treat their sons as assets because they are wed to bring money in the form of dowry. Gouri didn’t bring much money to count. You must have figured out Gouri’s fate in her marital home by now. Let me just add a few more facts. She escaped to her neighbor’s house and saved herself from being raped by her father-in-law. She discovered that her husband has another family – wife and a son. She was beaten severely everyday when her husband turned up dead drunk. She pleaded with her father and brothers (mother and sisters don’t count and don’t have any say) to let her come home. They said “little things in life”. They said “Make peace, make it work”. They said, “God intended”. They said, “Fate.”

She was an eighteen year old young girl, trapped in a horrific marriage with no support, no chance of escape. And we say slavery is abolished? In which universe? So Gouri made a choice, she made a choice over the only thing she had some control over. Her life.

She didn’t die, of course. After 9 months of intense pain, medical intervention, antibiotics, surgery, she lived. Her father and brothers, didn’t have much to begin with, but went completely bankrupt to pay her medical expenses. ‘My brothers used to love me before, but they don’t love me anymore!’ She told me. When her brothers sit down to eat lunch, she is instructed to leave the room and sit outside till they are done so they don’t have to see her burnt face, which revolts them they say. She told me this matter-of-factly, without emotion. Her family holds grudges against her as the reason for their debts and bankruptcy. I try my best not to judge, yet at the same time, remind her she had asked for help, and didn’t get any!

Since I heard about Gouri, I wanted to make it better for her. She is twenty years old, I thought. She has her whole life ahead of her. She deserves a second chance, she deserves a decent shot at life. I wanted to raise awareness of her situation, maybe raise money if I couldn’t afford the cost of reconstructive surgery for her. Yes, I was playing God, in my mind. When I went back and talked to her about it, I discovered she has not healed emotionally. She refuses to take a simple pill for her cold, she made it clear she will not see a doctor or take another single injection as long as she lives. She is not ready for any surgery to reconstruct her face. She can’t even bear to think of it. The pain is still fresh, still immediate. She remembers too much. At least for now, she will hide her face from the world and smile inside the four walls of her home. But I can be patient. I will wait. After all, she is only twenty years old.

The silver lining in this story? Well, now she is determined to earn money. She has a goal to buy a little plot of land one day. She knows her family will not take care of her any more. She knows she is on her own. She gives money to her family when they are in dire straits, but she saves most of her money. She has a wonderful financial planner in my father. He takes pride in telling her (and me) how many fixed deposits she already has and in 5 years how much her money will multiply. She listens and smiles silently. Maybe, just maybe she sees the first light of the silver lining peeking out from behind the clouds?

It could have been my story…..

It could have been my story but it isn’t because of an accident – the accident of birth. I am going to write a story today. A true story that shook me to the core. This story didn’t make the newspaper but it didn’t stay within the neighborhood where it took place either, it spread word to mouth and it reached me here, in America.

Not too long ago, a young woman, who we shall call Reena, was dreaming of a happy home with a loving husband. She didn’t belong to the emergent middle class in India, she was from the lowest strata, living in a simple home in a slum in Kolkata and dreaming of a simple, but content life with the man she was about to marry. It didn’t work out as she had planned, like it often doesn’t! Her husband didn’t share her dreams and didn’t want to share his life with her either. He drove her away after a few years of marriage. The reason? Who cares about it? She is just a woman and she is absolutely replaceable.

Reena came back home broken, abused. Her family did not welcome her with open arms. Why would they? She was just another mouth to feed and their resources were meagre. She had taken her share of the family inheritance in her dowry. When she returned empty-handed, she found she had no support in anyone or in any form. She was stigmatized since she was returned by her husband. It was her shame, she must have been at fault, of course! One day, during a quarrel, her brother said her life was not worth living. She was a burden to them, she was a burden to the world. The woman was emotionally vulnerable to begin with, she broke down completely and set herself on fire to end it, once and for all.

She couldn’t finish the job that she started though. Neighbors rescued her and took her to the hospital. Instead of succumbing to her injuries, she hung on to life. Reena survived. She walked out of that hospital with a misshapen face, disfigured with horrendous scars. She withdrew within herself, hid in the house for a while, covered her face with the pallu of her sari. But for some strange reason, she rediscovered her will to live again. This experience transformed her…gave her a will to try one more time, to take a shot at life. She didn’t talk to a therapist about it, she barely had two square meals but she must have figured out what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, for she came out of her house swinging, determined to make it!

She was always a hard worker, she started looking for a job as a domestic help. But faced rejection, yet again. People didn’t want to look at a scarred face in their house doing their chores. A retired couple were divided on this issue of hiring Reena. Mrs. Basu wanted to give Reena a job on humanitarian grounds, to give her a chance at life again, while Mr. Basu feared the grandchildren, when they came to visit, will be scared by her. He was sympathetic to what life had dealt her but wasn’t ready to employ her for her deformity.

My India is shining brightly for many. We are hosting the Commonwealth games, beauty pageants, the Formula 1 car racing! It is an exciting time to be in Inda with its trendsetting fashion, booming IT industry, entertainment industry, the telecom industry. The glittering, sparkly malls, the retail therapy that my friends do to pick themselves up when they’ve had a rough day, the big decisions they make whether to buy the Prada handbag, the Jimmy Choo slippers, the latest iPhone or Mac Air. By saying this, I am not passing any judgements on anybody or trying to act holier than thou. If I didn’t dislike shopping with a passion and I had the money, who knows, I would probably do the same! We have been free from the British rule for only 65 years and look where we have come! I applaud the efforts of my country women and men. Hard work, perseverance, grit, determination, talent – a combination of all these have propelled the country forward despite the snail paced bureaucracy and corruption. But there are these pockets of darkness that we need to, yet, illuminate. Many, many good men and women are working hard to make a difference. I have had the good fortune of meeting some of them and seeing the fruits of their effort. While it is certainly encouraging, we still have a long, long way to go. So many women, urban and rural alike are underprivileged, uneducated, and are still at the mercy of societal indifference, neglect and discrimination.

I was discussing the state of women with some Indian friends, while sitting in a beautiful home, eating delicious food, when one of my friends commented that we are not in a position to criticize India. We left the country a while ago and what exactly are we doing to change the situation? We have lost the right to criticize the day we boarded the plane to leave for good. That brought me down from my lofty, all-knowing state and dashed me to harsh reality! My friend was right! It was so easy for me to criticize and point out the problems at a social gathering and then do nothing about it but just return to my comfortable home, to get a good night’s sleep. What a hypocrite!

I couldn’t do a thing to change Reena’s situation but I wanted to try. I spoke to Mr. Basu pleading with him to employ Reena for her skills and not reject her, yet again, this time for the deformity of her face. Children are sensitive, and by giving Reena a job, he can actually set a great example for his grandchildren. This is a perfect opportunity to teach his grandchildren the important lessons of giving a fellow human a chance, to teach them everybody deserves a chance, the lesson of looking deeper for beauty than what is visible to the eye, the lesson of compassion and empathy, the lesson of acceptance of others who may be different! His grandchildren will be enriched by this experience. They will learn from her that if life gives you lemon, make some lemonade. I do believe I have convinced him. I just may have a good night’s sleep tonight.